KU's crown caps exciting Big 12 season. Now these teams need to make it matter
By Sam Mellinger firstname.lastname@example.org
The ribbon board between the benches here at the Big 12 men's basketball tournament is among the league's most visible chunks of real estate, and this being college sports, that visibility is almost always used to promote the mission of amateur athletics.
Hahahahahaha, just kidding. Sorry. Always wanted to see what it felt like to type something like that.
No, of course that real estate is sold for every dollar possible because unnecessary and redundant administrators have second houses to pay for.
It's notable, then, that the league gave up space on that board for what amounts to self-esteem. Two favorites:
9 TEAMS TOP 50 KENPOM SCHEDULE STRENGTH
9 TEAMS KENPOM TOP 51 RANKING
To be fair, the Big 12 is not the only conference to do this. The SEC and others promoted similar talking points. It's just that the Big 12 probably needs the pick-me-up more than most as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
With seven or more teams likely to make the NCAA Tournament, the Big 12, more than most leagues, needs some success.
"I think it is important," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Our league has played out; this year probably as tough as it's ever been. And three of the last four years I think we were No. 1 in the RPI. Usually, that should translate to more success in the postseason.
"So, yeah. I think it is important."
Self is actually underselling the league's RPI — first in four of the last five seasons.
No other league has been tops in RPI more than twice in the last decade. The Big 12 has been first or second six times. The ACC — the ACC! — has been first or second just once.
People whose paychecks come from the Big 12 and member institutions have often used this information to claim status as the best league in the country. Coaches do this more than anyone, some to save their jobs, some to promote their teams for higher NCAA seeds, some for boasts, some for a combination of all three.
As someone who grew up with the Big Eight, and has tried very hard to love the Big 12, I am tired of the talking points and computer rankings not matching the results. There are too many years that you can convince yourself the league really is the best in the country, only to be let down in the games most remember.
Because here are some more numbers: in the last 10 years, the Big 12 has earned 62 bids, won 79 NCAA Tournament games, made three Final Fours and won one national championship.
Over the same span, the ACC has earned 58 bids, won 97 games, made seven Final Fours and won four championships.
The Big East: 73 bids, 98 wins, eight Final Fours and three titles.
Put another way: less than 5 percent of Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament have made the Final Four. The ACC, SEC, and Big East are each above 10 percent. The Big Ten (6 out of 63 bids) qualifies if you round up. The last Big 12 team to make the Final Four lost its first game there by 44 points.
So, no disrespect to computer rankings as a point of pride in competitive sports but the KenPom rankings are falling flat. Here's a more honest brag for the ribbon board:
ALMOST AS GOOD AS THE BIG TEN
SAME NUMBER OF FINAL FOURS AS THE HORIZON LEAGUE OVER THE LAST EIGHT YEARS
This year could reinforce the knocks as much as any. Various projections have had seven or more of the league's 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament field. Two more have interesting resumes, though in Oklahoma's case, "interesting" is not really a compliment.
"I don't think our league is top heavy," Self said. "Our league is really middle heavy. There's no poor teams."
And that's true!
Oklahoma is perhaps the league's most disappointing team, losers of 11 of its last 15, and it won on Wichita State's home floor. Only two other teams did that this year.
West Virginia tied for second in the Big 12 and is one of only two teams to beat ACC champion Virginia in the regular season.
Kansas, the always champion of the Big 12, had more quadrant 1 wins through Thursday than any team in the country except North Carolina, which had four more losses.
We could go on, but generally speaking the point about the Big 12 being stronger in the middle than the top holds up to scrutiny. This is often presented as defense of the league's underwhelming NCAA Tournament record. But the Final Four is not exclusive to great teams, and besides, the Big 12 has fewer Sweet 16s in the last 10 years than the Big Ten, ACC and Big East.
Playing a difficult round robin schedule against teams with varying styles should, in theory, work in the Big 12's favor in the NCAA Tournament. After the brutal 18-game run, matchups outside the league should be welcomed.
Instead, the Big 12 has repeatedly underperformed.
Look, perhaps more than any major sports event in the country, the NCAA Tournament is about upsets. Better teams get beat. Good teams advance past great teams. Happens all the time.
So you can explain away any given year, or any given result. But over a decade, that luck should even out, and the more years you include the worse the Big 12 looks.
In theory, this could be a banner year for the league. Kansas is led by two star senior guards, and is playing as well as it has all year. West Virginia can turn any game into a rock fight. Texas Tech is among the country's best defensive teams, with a mix of experience and dynamism. TCU, Baylor, K-State (assuming Dean Wade is healthy) and Texas could each be brutal outs for someone.
One of the league's biggest deficiencies has been the lack of great teams after Kansas (which has its own list of postseason letdowns), and this year appears to provide the deepest list of potential second- or third-weekend teams in a while.
But we've seen versions of this before. Many times. If the trend continues, the bragging about RPI and KenPom rankings next year will continue to feel more like propaganda than truth, more like something to hang the league by than to prop it up with.